Are India’s leopards at greater risk of extinction than tigers?

Avatar BCR | March 5, 2010 0 Likes 0 Ratings

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By Francis – March 5, 2010

So far this year India has lost more than a leopard per day. While the plight of the country’s tigers has received much more attention, if leopards continue to be killed at this rate then it could be the spottier of the two felines that becomes extinct first.

There have been 62 cases of leopards dying compared to just 8 tiger deaths, but what may be even more concerning than the current fatality rate is the scale of escalation from the same period last year.

From the New Year to February 20, 26 leopards were found dead, which is a threefold increase from 2008 when the State lost nine of the big cats over the same period.

The nature of the killings has made them even more worrying. With especially brutal cases being uncovered. In just one day, February 12, a leopard was found ensnared with its limbs chopped off. Another was found hanging from a tree entangled in a metal wire noose.

Such incidents are occurring across the country, which has left conservationists concerned. “It’s a war out there,” declares Belinda Wright, of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

Ironically, the current large mortality rate does indicate that there is a fairly decent population of leopards, but a senior forest official pointed out that the current state of affairs cannot continue, “it cannot survive this large offtake”

Unfortunately, the leopard enjoys no political patronage, public opinion has not rallied in its favour. They are perceived as inconvenient and a threat, and are simply removed. Experts opine that the problem animals must be removed to gain support for the others, however, there is no policy that sets out an effective way to deal with ‘problem’ leopards.

Instead permits to hunt ‘maneaters’ are simply doled out by the forest department, and there is a rush to grab these. Says a senior official, “Usually, the first animal that crosses their path is slain to appease the public. Hunters themselves reckon that they may kill four wrong leopards till the targeted ‘maneater’ is shot.

The leopard’s plight comes in many forms. It is poached for its skin and bones, the former to cater to demands of fashion, and the latter a substitute for tiger bones. It is mowed down by trains and vehicles

These threats to the leopard are exacerbated by the degradation of its habitat.

It is essentially a solitary animal, a rare sight in the wild. Not being a top predator, it lives on the fringes of the forest, preying on small game like barking deer, cheetah, langur. With its habitat degraded, and natural prey poached, the leopard has been forced to set up camp near human habitation, and to survive it lives off dogs, goats, cattle and occasionally man.

When the big cats kill there is outrage and people beat, burn and bludgeon the animal to death. Sometimes this is in revenge, or often simply for their wandering into human habitation.

As far back as 2005, the Regional Deputy Director (Northern Region) responsible for enforcing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species had sent a note to the Ministry of Environment and Forests expressing concern at the high level of leopard poaching

It warned that, “Such a heavy offtake of animals from the existing leopard population is a matter of serious concern and merits immediate review” but to no avail.

In early 2009, the same office in its new avatar as Wildlife Crime Control Bureau sent alerts to a number of regions to be vigilant, but got on response.

The leopards continue to be decimated, and continue on the grim path to extinction.


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